Finally, the unvarnished truth about slavery

12 Years a Slave

is the most important film ever made about American slavery. Steve McQueen’s harrowing masterpiece will put to rest any lingering sentimental notion that the culture supported by enslaved labor was anything but utterly destructive.  Based closely on the remarkable first-hand account of Solomon Northrup, it depicts his kidnapping in Washington, DC, and his transportation to New Orleans where he is sold to a Louisiana plantation owner. On the way south he passes though Richmond, Virginia, where he spends a night in one of the city’s notorious holding pens owned by a Mr. Goodin. (This scene is not included in the film.)  In unrelenting detail the movie documents the treatment of human beings as chattel: the separation of children from mothers and husbands from wives, the use of brute violence to break the will to resist, and the ever-present threat of rape and torture. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup is stunning as are all the other actors. In the most hard-to-watch scene, a single ten-minute shot depicts Northrup being forced to flog a young woman, whom the plantation owner has repeatedly raped, while the jealous wife demands to see the blood flow. In this one shot McQueen captures the absolute evil of the plantation system, with its toxic mix of racism, greed, sexual lust and jealously, fear, dominance and ubiquitous violence. Such an environment leads to a kind of madness. McQueen captures the way in which fear conditions its victims to accept violence as the norm. Thus, in another unbearably long shot, Northrup is shown being punished by hanging for hours, almost to the point of strangulation – his toes barely touching the ground – while others of the enslaved workforce carry on with their work around him in the fields.  In such scenes McQueen avoids the use of dramatic music; the chirping of birds or insects provides an even more haunting background.  These scenes of cruelty brought to my mind the words of Lincoln in his second inaugural address delivered during the carnage of the Civil War: “Yet, if God wills that [the war] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'”Our office team viewed the film together. Afterwards we reflected on what we had experienced.

  • We were struck by the fact that both the enslaved and the slave owners lived in fear: the enslaved men and women never knowing at what moment violence would erupt or when they might be separated from their loved ones; the slave owners constantly fearful of an uprising.  In this sense both victims and victimizers were trapped. As my colleague Tee Turner says about race relations today: “Some of us are in maximum security prisons and others in minimum security prisons, but we’ve all suffered and we all need to be healed.” 

  • A major theme of the film is dominance. We asked ourselves: what part does dominance play in our lives and in our society today? 

  • Can we handle the complexity and ambiguity of history? The film subtly indicates the sense of superiority of free men like Northrup who had not previously experienced slavery toward others who had grown up in – and been beaten down by – the system. In another vignette, we see an enslaved woman who has become the mistress of a plantation owner and has learned to use her power to attain a position of privilege. 

  • Does religion require giving up your agency to someone else? The slave system used Christian scripture to justify the subjugation of other human beings. How could men and woman in bondage see beyond this hypocrisy to the spiritual truth that could not be destroyed and to the promise of liberation? 

  • In light of the history of slavery and the 100 years of segregation that followed, how was it possible for African Americans to forgive?

12 Years a Slave made me angry, it made me weep and it left me more than ever in awe of the courage of African Americans and their gift of grace to this country – and the world.  It is a story of unimaginable horror but also a story of survival. Hopefully it will generate more serious conversation about the legacy of our history, why even to this day no formal apology has been offered by an American president – much less reparations by the federal government – and why we still tolerate the de facto segregation of our schools and neighborhoods and continue to feed young men to the prison industrial complex. 12 Years a Slave is more than a powerful telling of history: it can be a spur to our conscience and an inspiration for action.